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The death of a family member or close friend can be overwhelming for a child. Parents and teachers often have questions about how to provide emotional support for a child after a death and how to handle their participation in a funeral or memorial service.

Information for Parents and Family Members

Should my child attend a funeral?

Children of any age can attend a funeral with preparation about what to expect. Infants and very young children benefit from having a familiar person prepared to remove them from the funeral if they become restless. This could be a family friend or a regular care provider; someone who would not feel the need to stay in the service for their own benefit.

How do I explain a funeral to my child?

Many children aren’t aware of the purpose of a funeral or memorial service or what to expect. Providing clear, concise information will help them make a decision about whether they want to attend. This should include the specifics about where and when the service will be, who will attend, the order of service, potential reaction of others, and any special plans. There should also be discussion of whether or not there are plans for a burial or cremation and the meaning of both. Give them honest, concrete answers. They can sense when you are sidestepping an issue.

How do I prepare my child for the service?

Explain the service in age appropriate terms and be aware of not projecting your own bias into the conversations. Comments such as “You should remember them like they were” may give the impression that a funeral is frightening or even dangerous. If the casket is to be open, it is wise to tell them that the body will not look or feel like it did when the person was alive.

How much should I tell my child about burial and cremation?

Children are naturally curious about what happens to the body of a person who dies. Begin the conversation by telling them that the person who died no longer needs their body, and then briefly describe burial or cremation. For example:

“When someone dies their body is no longer needed by them and we have to decide what to do with it. We put the body in a special box called a casket and bury it or take it to a place where it goes into a very hot oven and is burned. Because there is no longer life in the body, we say goodbye to their body at the funeral service.”

Will the funeral be too emotional for my child?

Funerals help all family members say goodbye to the person who died so they can begin to accept the loss and start to heal. Attending a funeral helps a child understand that funerals are about celebrating someone’s life as well as mourning their death. They will have the opportunity to share memories, both sad ones and comforting ones, and observe family and friends supporting one another. Children report feeling left out and resentful when they are not given a choice about attending a funeral or memorial service. They may assume that adults feel they are not mature enough to attend with the rest of the family, impacting their view of themselves.

What can I expect?

There are as many reactions to a funeral as there are children. Some may be shy, pulling away from adults who claim to know them but are essentially strangers.   Adults may pat them on the head and tell them how much they have grown and they do not know what to say or do. They may play with other children in attendance that they have not seen for some time. They value having teachers at the service but may not speak to them. As long as the child’s behavior does not disrupt the proceedings, and is their honest reaction, it is okay.

What if my child doesn’t want to go to the funeral?

Children should not be forced to attend the funeral if they understand the concept and choose not to go. If you feel they are uncomfortable going, offer an alternative that feels right for both of you. If they choose to go to school, let the teacher know that this is a special day for them and they may need additional support. Plan something for you and your child to do together to mark the occasion such as visiting the cemetery or crematorium and having your own private memorial time.

Should my child take part in the funeral or memorial service?

Memorialization is an important part of the healing process and can begin at the funeral. A child can participate in the service depending on their interest, age and ability.   Ask children for their ideas. They will surprise you and create something that is truly meaningful for them. Some children may want to play music, read something they have written, or place a memento in the casket. Looking through photos with family and choosing those for display at the funeral involves them in the family stories.

Is there anything I should do after the funeral or memorial service?

After the service talk with your kids to see if they have questions or misconceptions about the service or the reactions of the other attendees. They may interpret casual conversations or laughter they saw during or after the service as a sign of disrespect for their loved one. Note that adults in attendance may have made inappropriate comments to them. For example: telling a young boy whose father has died, that he is the man of the house now or that it is his job to take care of his mother. Explain that even adults do not know what to say to comfort someone who is grieving but that they were there because they care about your family